James Callahan

A Camp Rattler profile: Cult visionary and Noir Dark Spirits proprietor Josh Balz

A Camp Rattler profile: Cult visionary and Noir Dark Spirits proprietor Josh Balz
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My initial interaction with Josh Balz began sometime after he had chosen to leave Motionless In White to pursue other endeavors and my trashy little rock bar, The Rattler in Pittston, had closed due to structural difficulties. Well… the back fell off the building.

I found myself venue-less and saddled with several storage units, crammed to capacity with an odd collection of creepy items, antique taxidermy, vintage frames, etc. I mean, I owned a half-goat mount that boasted four horns, one of which had grown into its throat to ultimately “take” the poor bastard.

The first location of his Strange and Unusual Oddities Parlor had been open for a little while by then, so I called to speak with someone about taking this compulsively amassed collection of weirdness off my hands. With this new chapter, I was taking on a more monastic look on life. Plus, I just didn’t wish to pay “rent” for “stuff.”

Upon our first meeting, I found Josh to be quiet, overtly polite, and refreshingly clever. He and I then began to chat from time to time. Balz lent me a stuffed hog’s head for a Clutch music video that I was working on, and he borrowed a Krampus costume from us for a promotion he had going on. After a couple phone conversations, he agreed to accompany us on a quick afternoon trip to survey the Mountain Sky grounds regarding ideas for the inaugural Darkenheavy Campfest.

During that short road trip, I began to see Josh as this interesting Matryoshka doll – a textured exterior that hid layers and layers of secrets and mysteries. Most of this strata ultimately proved, over time, not to be as dark and horrid as the wet specimens, carnival taxidermy, and prosthetist gear that had become simultaneous with the Josh Balz mystique and brand.

By the way, if you have never wandered The Strange and Unusual (467 Wyoming Ave., Kingston), you lose. It is a painstakingly designed theater of the bizarre, complete with “floating candles,” paintings on the walls winking at your ass, and a Harry Potter-themed coffee shop called Steamy Hallows. The oddities shop turned counter culture nucleus is merely one of the many layers of this eccentric and smart young business man. To fully dig into the conundrum that is Balz, one must check out Noir Nights events in Scranton, the Midnight Society/Batty Fang Salon & Spa in Wilkes-Barre, his Strange Kids music, or his appearances on the Space Zebra podcast with Wes Borland of Limp Bizkit and BlackCraft Cult co-founder Bobby Schubenski, among other pet projects.

It’s a lot.

As our acquaintanceship developed, I began to understand why, initially the underground masses, and then later the norms with their kids, gravitated toward Josh Balz and his great ideas. Fucking conservative Americans, Instagram aficionados, and Hot Topic alumni alike had all begun to simultaneously wonder what lies beneath this carefully crafted shell.

As the autumn crisp began to hit my face, I chatted with Balz again on behalf of NEPA Scene regarding rumors of a Halloween-themed amusement ride called Monster Coaster. Sure as hell, there was a Monster Coaster.

He explained that “at the last minute” he “decided” to commit to an idea that had been previously discussed with Camelback Mountain Resort in Tannersville, but it had never really fleshed out. So in a blistering whirlwind of Samhain spirit, Team Balz spun into design and inspiration to create an experience that would include actors, animatronics, lights, fog, etc. Josh explained that the Monster Coaster was a unique, visceral opportunity that you can’t find anywhere else, but also confessed his thoughts for next season were so much better.

This constant mission of sturdy wins and expansion into the experiential was beginning to really intrigue and certainly impress me.

My old ass, flanked by my partner in life Kristin Rose and our homie Pat Riot, a local rapper and professional piercer at Town Hall Tattoo in Wilkes-Barre, set off in 30-degree weather to get our friggin’ Monster Coaster on.

We arrived in what we felt was plenty of time to miss the crowds and simultaneously catch the last run of Josh’s attraction. We ramble to the ticket window and, true to his word, our passes awaited, so we took a stern gallop toward the ghoulish sound effects that had begun to incite the 12-year-old in all three of us.

Our trio reached the platform with N95-hidden little kid grins. We proudly displayed our Balz VIP passes to a sweet little woman named Candace standing across the Alpine crevasse from us. She cocked her head sideways and, with a fair bit of legit regret, informed us that the last car had just left and that the ride was definitely closed for the evening.

There was an awkward pause… a long awkward pause.

I would like to think it my obvious “kindergartner disappointment,” coupled with our general whiny protests that had changed their minds. Because with very little prodding, we were waiting in our Alpine cars anticipating the ride. But this actually had nothing to do with any of our nonsense.

It had everything to do with the fact that we were there as guests of Josh. The horror actors freezing their asses off, the alpine slide conductors already tasting their first Miller Lites, everyone… all happily began to reset the ride, stayed late, and readied Josh’s guests for launch, solely on the merits of the mutual respect they all shared for Balz.

Candace and her cohort loaded Pat Riot into the first trolley, solo, and he began the slow click upward. Kristin Rose and I doubled up, barely able to contain our Halloween excitement. We started our ascent to what appeared to be super fun, evilly lit animatronics spilling over with bubbling fog about halfway to the peak, which Pat was just now reaching.

As the dimly lit car in front of us hit the top and began the abrupt turn that one may expect from such a contraption, the entire mountain went dark. I am talking everything. Attraction sets, lift lights – all of Balz’s carefully planned spooks and scares were suddenly black black, the kind of dark reserved for caves and deep space. Kristin “Heimliched” me from her rear position in the car as I heard slightly muffled vulgarity and real-deal yelps of delicious horror from Mr. Riot.

I am not sure what installations, snarling monsters, or creepy props Team Balz had prepared, but this was an obviously unplanned, possibly miscommunicated, harmless mishap that lasted an amazing high-speed, truly frightening, buttery and blind 75 seconds.

Whoever hadn’t gotten the “three more coming through” memo and momentarily killed the lights quickly corrected the error and rebooted Monster Coaster just in time for us to all feel the closeness of the first live actor. It was awesome.

Afterward, the three of us floated back to the car, high off some wild and feral haunted house-tinted adrenaline. Balz called the next day and apologized for our less-than-perfect experience or something… but I couldn’t hear it. I cut him off and confessed how insanely perfect it was. While courteously receiving our thanks, he again promised that next year will be more everything. I believed him.

Soon after my late October conversation with Josh, he, his family, and friends endured a tragic loss. I reached out with our simple condolences and decided to tuck our frivolous review away for safe keeping.

When Josh reached back out some weeks later, he told us of his plans to open a bar, that he was desirous of taking his Noir Nights pop-up bar series to the next level. I was anxious to experience the result.

Last week, Kristin Rose and I had the privilege and pleasure to be invited to an early tour of Noir Dark Spirits (244 Penn Ave., Scranton), Josh’s newest dark curation. This is what we learned.

Everything in Noir has been custom-crafted, with the exception of the original bar and bar top of The Keys, which closed in 2019. I am referring to the incredibly ornate back bar, the one-of-a-kind Robert Smith neon light, the gobs of original spooky art, an impressively themed 12 craft beer selection and local wine list, signature cocktails… there was even talk of a golden hotdog.

The newly launched Noir website describes it as a tapas bar that “specializes in fine cocktails and one-of-a-kind fare. Our unique menu, created in collaboration with Chef David Ciminelli, offers shareable bites of contemporary cuisine, contributing to Noir’s encapsulating atmosphere. Quench your thirst with one of our meticulously crafted specialty cocktails and go beyond the norm with everything that Noir has to offer.”

Now, I could tell you all the other little tasty details that Josh and his partner Steve Masterson leaked to us this past week but, like everything else that Josh Balz lays his hands on, it’s better experienced in person, for yourself. That’s Josh’s whole point – get out and play in a different sandbox, see something odd, lose yourself in a gothic fairy tale… if only for an hour or two.